The Man with the Hoe Themes
The main theme in “The Man with the Hoe” is social problems.
- Social problems: Markham’s poem called attention to social problems and served as the topic of discussion for a wide range of audiences. It remains timely and appropriate because it focuses on problems which are still unsolved.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
"The Man with the Hoe" explores several significant themes that reflect the social and political issues of the Progressive Era. In the poem, Edwin Markham vividly depicts the plight of laborers and addresses broader themes related to social justice, human suffering, and the dehumanizing impact of industrialization.
As someone with first-hand experience with hard physical labor, Markham saw himself as a champion of worker rights. He is often considered to be one of the earliest poets to write on this subject during the Progressive Era.
As such, the central theme of "The Man with the Hoe" is class exploitation and social injustice. This poem highlights the ill-treatment and oppression faced by the laboring class. Although the subject of this particular poem is a farmhand, the message applies to all physical laborers.
Markham raises concerns about the unfair distribution of wealth and power, emphasizing the vast disparity between the wealthy elite and the impoverished workers. He cries out that exploitation has made laborers into little more than beasts of burden:
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Related to this is the theme of dehumanization. Markham portrays the laborer as a symbol of human degradation. The man's bent posture and worn-out appearance show the toll backbreaking labor takes on his physical and emotional well-being. In this way, the poem challenges society's indifference to the suffering and dehumanization of the working class.
The references to the "brutal jaw," "slanted back brow," and "blown-out light within this brain" emphasizes the physical and psychological cost of a life of labor. His physical features have been distorted and his mental faculties have been diminished, as if his very essence has been altered by his work.
Although the direct inspiration for this poem is pastoral in origin, it is also a condemnation of industrialization. Markham uses this poem to critique the effects of industrialization, where human labor is reduced to a mere commodity. "The Man with the Hoe" highlights the loss of connection to the land and nature, as mechanization and capitalism dominate society, resulting in the further exploitation of laborers.
Furthermore, Markham touches upon the loss of spirituality and the erosion of moral values in an industrialized society. The laborer's haggard appearance and despair are symbolic of the spiritual emptiness resulting from a society that prioritizes the material gain of the bourgeois class and neglects spiritual and ethical aspects of life. The poem’s numerous religious references underscore this disconnect.
Markham also takes a broader look at humanity and urges his audience to reflect on their collective responsibility toward addressing social injustices. He encourages empathy and calls for action to alleviate the plight of the laboring class, emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity:
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream,
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?
While "The Man with the Hoe" reveals the grim reality faced by the laborer, it also carries a sense of hope for social change and equality. Markham's portrayal of the laborer as an emblematic figure of suffering serves as a call to action, urging readers to strive for a more just and compassionate society.
In this, there is also a note of warning. If those in power do right the wrongs they have inflicted upon the working class, a time will come when the oppressed will rise up in rebellion against their oppressors. The final stanza poses a crucial question about the fate of those who have shaped the laborer into a symbol of human degradation, wondering how they will fare when faced with the judgment of the ages.